Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward juxtaposes the America of today, where any Black boy can die from police brutality at any time, with the Jim Crow era, which still lingers in the memory of an aged generation. Among this generation are Mama and Pop – as Philomène, a magnificent traditional healer dying of cancer, and her husband, a gentle man actually named River, are known to their grandson Jojo.

The novel unfolds in three voices, opening on Jojo trying, painfully, to assist his grandfather in slaughtering a goat. It is his 13th birthday, and his mother will soon neglectfully buy him a baby shower cake, another reminder of how fortunate he is to live with his grandparents. At times, Jojo’s narrative can seem too sophisticated, especially as compared to his speaking voice. This settles once the reader recalls that Jojo is gifted with extrasensory perception: he can hear what cannot be expressed, the thoughts of animals and of his toddler sister, Kayla, whose vocabulary has been slow to develop. It’s a credit to the seamless way in which the supernatural and the mysterious are spoken of in this book that we sometimes forget this detail. Later, we learn that like others in his family, Jojo can also see and communicate with spirits.

Jojo’s mother Leonie, who had him as a teenager, is the second voice. She takes her children along for the long drive to the prison from which their father, Michael, is about to be released. Michael is a White man whose cousin killed Leonie’s beloved brother, Given, whom she still sees when high on meth. Much of the book’s action takes place on this journey, where the children are exposed to everything from thirst and nausea to a police encounter. The third voice enters the book later: Richie, a ghost of Jojo’s age, joins the family on the car journey back from Parchman, where Michael was serving time and where a horrifying incident from Pop’s own youth took place.

It’s difficult to think of this family as a broken one – despite the drugs, incarceration and disease – because the love in this book goes at least as deep as the decay. When Ward writes of love, every character is redeemed. Most profound among these loves is what exists between Jojo and his grandparents. It shimmers in countless quotidian acts, just as his vigilant care for his sister does. The love between Mama and Pop, too, is full of tenderness – palpable even while she ails, out of sight of the action. Then there’s the exhilarating selfishness of the romance between Leonie and Michael, a love that almost has room for no one else, not even the children it has brought into being, although Leonie’s own love for her mother is almost luminescent – “I thought about that Medusa I’d seen in an old movie when I was younger, monstrous and green-scaled, and I thought: That’s not it at all. She was as beautiful as Mama. That’s how she froze those men, with the shock of seeing something so perfect and fierce in the world.” Even one of the ghosts aches with love, plaintive with longing for the only man he knows as his father. Yet, again and again we are also shown: there is no real redemption.

This is a book that gets better with every page, so that by the time we are halfway through, all the earlier confusions – from the unevenness of language between Jojo’s articulations and observations to various small points lost in the non-linear, occasionally dense, lyrical style – fade. As its climatic final pages and the inevitable death they contain draw nearer, Sing, Unburied, Sing demands stepping away to recalibrate before returning. Devastation is unavoidable, both in and by this impressive novel. Ward saves her choicest moral ambiguities for near the end, so we find ourselves in medias res even then – haunted, as are all her characters.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: What’s Gratitude Got To Do With Genocide?

So America has copied India, and if that makes you happy, feel free to use my sour grapes to make faux champagne. The imitation remains mutual, though. India – or more precisely, cashless, digital, desensitised India – now celebrates Thanksgiving, a North American festival with a history its name completely belies. I noticed it last year, in personal status messages and corporate sales promotions, and the trend continues.  It falls today.

For some reason, many people seem to think that Thanksgiving is a day when you express gratitude. For, I don’t know, having PayTM, credit cards and god-bless-Amazon-India? For being the first to get exclusive UNESCO-certified Whatsapp forwards? Alright, maybe I’m being uncharitable (see sour grapes from earlier). Some sincere, well-intentioned, but sadly ill-informed people seem to think Thanksgiving is a day to be appreciative of one’s good luck and myriad blessings.

But its North American observance, memorializing an autumn harvest feast shared by Puritan colonisers and Native Americans, is also a fictitious lustre on facts. To be exact, it’s nationalist propaganda. The first Thanksgiving of 1637 celebrated a massacre of 700 Pequot people. Native Americans were probably not seated at that table. Among what followed and preceded were: the Trail of Tears, smallpox as warfare, stolen lands, systematic slaughter and too much more.

Reading beyond skewed history textbooks, we know that Columbus sought a direct sea route to Asia. His poor navigation skills opened the Americas up for exploitation over the coming centuries. So when you observe the festival in India, what are you saying thanks for: that it wasn’t your ancestors, just someone else’s?

The Native Americans who survive to this day – whose voices I seek to neither represent nor appropriate – as well as all who were wiped out, with or without descendants, deserve more respect than that.

Distantly, we hear of the resistance against a pipeline that violates sacred Sioux grounds at Standing Rock, where water cannons and mace are blasted at unarmed protestors, who were even locked into cages and attacked by dogs. Distantly, we read of how even as these events unfolded, Obama was posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Elouise Cobell, who successfully litigated against the United States government in the largest class action lawsuit in its history, for mismanagement of funds and lands leased from Native American nations. Such dissonance, between the things we are told and the things we know to be true. And still, so very distantly, we type out “Happy Thanksgiving! So grateful for all the good things in life yo!” as though nothing is connected, as though the history of human survival is not twinned by the history of human carnage.

Don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Your “good intentions” don’t bring back the cultures that are lost forever, or revive the ones that are under threat. Your “good intentions” don’t keep human rights violations from happening to this very day. Hell, your “good intentions” haven’t even solved the riddle of how India sends missions to Mars but hasn’t invented tools that replace manual scavenging with bare hands, right here in our own backyards.

And as for gratitude? What’s genocide got to do with it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar

The trouble with writing about war is that it’s almost impossible to do so without having to name an enemy, and some would argue, almost disingenuous not to. If taking the side of the terrorist, that vague yet absolutely damning term that has taken firm root in the world’s contemporary lexicon, is crude; then to take the side of any of the governments locking horns against this named but nebulous danger is equally reckless. In this lucid and well-researched enquiry into the American vendetta that in the decade since 9/11 has become a “global war on terror”, Amitava Kumar finds one way to approach this: from his position as an individual, he addresses the Other in the same way.

Two individuals in particular are at the centre of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. Both are men serving long-term prison sentences for the abetment of terrorist advances: Hemant Lakhani, a businessman and habitual braggart whose grandiose lies seal his fate, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, a dim-witted but almost sweetly devout young man. Both were coerced into planning terrorist attacks by paid informants. Neither, Kumar argues, would have gotten involved at all were it not for this coercion, not by radical factions but by the United States government itself. Not unlike the way in which funds that could have been used in the research and eradication of common diseases were diverted to tackle the spectral issue of biological warfare, the ordinary – if gullible – civilian becomes a target while the true progenitors of evil remain at large.

But sting operations are only the more dramatic manifestations of this: less dramatic, but pervasive, is the Islamophobia and general mistrust that had resulted in hundreds of people being taken into custody for transgressions no more serious than minor credit card fraud or having the wrong kind of name. One of the most terrifying examples enumerated in this book is that of Mohamed Yousry, a graduate student who had served as a translator in a court case, an act which later resulted in him being indicted on grounds of providing “material support to terrorists”. Neither his demonstrable lack of “suspicious” allegiance (a non-practicing Muslim with no ties to Islamic organisations, married to a Christian, raising his daughter in her mother’s faith) nor his outright condemnation of the accused he was translating for were enough to keep him from being scapegoated.

The most sinister layer to all of this is torture, as performed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Here, again, the question of coercion arises: if not granted immunity (for operating under Presidential command) if not for having fallen in love with the wrong person (as Lynndie England, who emerged in shocking photographs holding a leash around a prisoner’s neck pleaded, citing her relationship with “the ringleader” of detainee abuse) – would those members of the military have committed those acts? One of the fundamental precepts this book posits is to consider power play and human psychology, difficult though it is to remain dispassionate.

The book’s most thought-provoking angle, however, deals not with the hapless but with those who make informed and conscious statements about the nature of anti-terrorism in the modern world: artists. Whether playing with shock or dealing with sentiment, the examples Kumar details are neither intellectual nor elitist responses, but a means of direct engagement. Conceptual artist Hasan Elahi’s daily web uploads detailing every aspect of his life becomes “a collaboration [with] the FBI” – by submitting himself willfully to the scrutiny of a surveillance state, he overwhelms it. Video art, installation and literature that deal with the reality of today’s world without necessarily fictionalising it are also explored: creativity as a feasible means of the reclamation of power, protest art in the age of advanced technology.

A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is a valuable book, a nearly academic (and therefore highly meticulous) inquiry into anti-terrorism. In the past ten years, we have seen war through the eyes of artists and through the eyes of journalists, but Kumar’s middle ground brings something different to the discourse, and allows him to analyse both these responses as well.

Although Kumar also explores anti-terrorism in India, the book fares strongest when the focus in on America, and America’s effect on the world. His overarching argument is that the war in Iraq is “an elaborate and expensive distraction that hides from us the real crime” (of the war on terror). But while he presents this argument very successfully, the end of terrorism itself remains an open-ended question. This lack of didacticism, notable because it is quite rare in the work of political writers, is welcome. The question at the core of this text seems to be: if finger-pointing engenders and stokes conflict, where might we find ourselves if we stopped looking for easy answers?

An edited version appeared in this week’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.